m_topn picture
Atlantic Monthly Sidebar

As originally published in
The Atlantic Monthly

January 1995

Built Pieces


Like Igor Stravinsky, Duke Ellington was
a brilliant assembler of other people's music


by David Schiff


THE relationship between jazz and "serious" music has been a touchy subject for seventy years. Critics have portrayed jazz as either a primitive folk music or the real classical music of this century. Throughout his life Duke Ellington found himself right in the middle of this controversy. He played his music at the Cotton Club and at Carnegie Hall. Where did it belong? The true home for Ellington's music has yet to be determined, but a steady outpouring of new recordings and criticism allows us to achieve a fresh view of his vast legacy.

Mark Tucker's Duke Ellington Reader (1993)--a 500-page anthology of writings about the Duke, the contents of which are illuminating, sobering, maddening, and occasionally inspiring--documents a mixed history of appreciation and incomprehension behind the current movement to elevate Ellington to the highest ranks of twentieth-century composers. This status is assumed by the Smithsonian Institution in its exhibition "Beyond Category: The Musical Genius of Duke Ellington," which is in the midst of a three-year tour of the country, and in a pedestrian 1993 biography by the curator of the exhibit, John Edward Hasse.

The Smithsonian acquired a huge collection of Ellington material from the composer's family in 1988. It should keep musicologists busy for the next several centuries. Neither the exhibit, which seems aimed at the very young, nor Hasse's biography, which reads like a coffeetable book, reveals any surprising new insights into the man or the music. No matter: the music is what counts, and with every passing month new Ellington CDs appear, covering his entire recording career, from 1923 to 1973.

Yet despite the musical evidence, Ellington remains controversial. In his 1987 biography of Ellington the curmudgeonly critic James Lincoln Collier raised the question of whether Ellington should be considered a composer at all, on the grounds that he "rarely wrote out a composition in complete form" and that so many of the works were composed collaboratively. In his biography Hasse questions Collier's evaluation of Ellington. But Hasse does lend considerable substance to the charge that many of Ellington's compositions were in fact written by or with others--a situation not always accurately reflected in the copyright.

The who-wrote-what question is, however, a red herring. None of the musicians with whom Ellington composed--not Bubber Miley, not Johnny Hodges, not Juan Tizol, and not even Billy Strayhorn, Ellington's classically trained, musically distinctive alter ego--produced significant music when separated from him. Ellington had a genius for making music out of other people's music.

Ellington was an assembler. His band and his compositions were collections of instrumental colors and musical styles brought together by his guiding sensibility. Although he created many original melodies from distinctively chromatic and wide-leaping lines (as in "I Got It Bad" and "Prelude to a Kiss"), and was arguably the most advanced jazz harmonist of his time, he constructed many of his pieces with familiar phrase units, which gained new meaning through surprising juxtapositions. Many Ellington pieces incorporate bits of blues, harmonic progressions based on ancient jazz like "Tiger Rag," tune structures from Broadway standards, and actual melodies from other people's songs. These allusions and transformations were not criminal acts of plagiarism; they were a compositional method.

Once we view Ellington in this light, we can place him head to head with the other great musical pickpocket and assembler of twentieth-century music: Igor Stravinsky. After all, both composers turned Chopin's Funeral March to their own ends (compare the beginning of Stravinsky's Piano Concerto with the end of "Black and Tan Fantasy"), and both dared to reharmonize "The Star-Span-gled Banner" and recompose large chunks of Tchaikovsky. And each relied on a close collaborator--Strayhorn for Ellington, Robert Craft for Stravinsky-- to function as a composer. Most important, both were able to transform almost any available musical material through the power of an instantly recognizable style.

Some music grows like a plant from a seed, gradually evolving toward its ultimate goal--call it organic. Other music sounds pasted together and shows its joins--call it cubist. And some music seems to express a timeless perfection--call it geometric. Geometric form is rarer in a medium as provisional as jazz, but you can hear it in such well-polished pieces as Art Tatum's "Willow Weep for Me" and Fletcher Henderson's "Down South Camp Meeting," that anthem of the swing era. Listening to a Sonny Rollins solo, in contrast, we hear an idea gradually unfold and build, often over many choruses.

Ellington's music is different--more compact and contrived than Rollins's, less stable than Henderson's. Listen to "Harlem Airshaft" (1940) after "Down South Camp Meeting." They belong to the same up-tempo genre, and yet the Ellington composition sounds more complicated, dense, and disorienting. Both pieces are in three sections. In the Henderson the outer sections create an architectural balance, a symmetrical frame for the main tune. Ellington begins "Harlem Airshaft" with several short, disconnected phrases, each in a different key, which forecast the different musical ideas to come. This rapidly cross-cut sneak preview sets up the final chorus, which superimposes the three ideas of the piece. From beginning to end the musical themes--all of them swing-era commonplaces of no particular originality--appear in a state of active contrast, not static balance. If Henderson's piece is pure swing, Ellington's is second-degree swing--swing about swing.

Yet at the same time, Ellington's tour de force of counterpoint and structure is a pure jazz composition, a typical "I Got Rhythm" spinoff so unassuming in its ingenuity that some critics, including Gunther Schuller, dismiss it as not much more than a series of cliched riffs. To make complexity seem effortless is the hallmark of a great stylist. Ellington's music is as elegantly put together as were his suits, shirts, and ties--and his stage persona. (Stravinsky was also quite a dresser.)

Ellington's orchestra was, uniquely, an ensemble of individuals. Its distinctive sonority began with the 1920s "jungle style" of Bubber Miley's plunger-muted trumpet, which was soon confirmed by the growl and plunger sound of Joe "Tricky Sam" Nanton's trombone and then amplified by Harry Carney's baritone sax. The three components of the jungle style come together in "East St. Louis Toodle-Oo," with its distinctive blend of sass and pathos. Significantly, the sound of the piece as a whole comes from a blending of idiosyncratic personal styles and instruments from different choirs. At the time it appeared, in 1926, it sounded like no other jazz.

The jungle style, with (for better or worse) its Cotton Club associations, would make Ellington famous, but he soon introduced very different elements into his band--namely, two performers whose style derived from Sidney Bechet, the master of blues inflections whom Ellington later called "the foundation." Johnny Hodges and Barney Bigard brought a sensuousness to the band through their liquid arabesques of sound and continuous bending of pitch, which counteracted the rough gutbucket quality of Bubber Miley (and later Cootie Williams), Joe Nanton, and Harry Carney. This contrast might have given another band an identity crisis. For Ellington it became a principle that he pursued further: by 1940 the sound of the band was built of sharply contrasting sonorities within each instrumental section.

Ellington's precise command of individual colors within his orchestra recalls Rimski-Korsakov's principle that an orchestrator should assign melodies only to instruments uniquely equipped in register and tone color to play them--a principle perfected by Ravel and Stravinsky. Ellington applied this idea not just to instruments but to specific performers: in his scores he assigned lines by name of player rather than of instrument. This approach had a drawback, in that it left the repertory of the band exposed to changes in personnel. Between the start of the famous Ben Webster-Jimmy Blanton recordings of 1940 and 1941 and the 1943 Carnegie Hall concert, Cootie Williams and Barney Bigard left the band, and Blanton, whose bass playing transformed its rhythmic feeling, died tragically at the age of twenty-three. It was to be another decade before Ellington's orchestra achieved a recognizable and stable cast of players.

To some critics the dispersal of the "classic" 1940 band marked the end of Ellington's significant contribution to jazz. I think they undervalue the pleasures provided by the Ellington band of the fifties, which featured the heady gin-and-dry-vermouth mixture of Jimmy Hamilton's classical-style clarinet, Clark Terry's whimsical flugelhorn, and Ray Nance's sinuous violin. But then, I have always had a fondness for the artsy, even louche, side of Ellington, which made many of his critics uneasy.

By the sixties Ellington had turned his personnel problems into a strength by recording with musicians outside his band such as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Coleman Hawkins, Charles Mingus, and John Coltrane. Now all of jazz history became, in effect, his band. In this series of collaborative recordings Ellington assembled a jazz canon thirty years before the notion of classic jazz. (The ultimate collaboration--the joint recording of the Basie and Ellington orchestras made in 1961--reveals an unintended historical irony: by the time the two bands met, they had lost their individuality to such an extent that they seemed indistinguishable.) In 1963 Ellington created one of the first classic big-band anthologies with Recollections of the Big Band Era, a recording that combines reverent reconstructions of charts by Henderson and Sy Oliver with savage deconstructions of Guy Lombardo, Stan Kenton, and George Gershwin. I doubt that any of today's jazz-repertory orchestras would allow themselves such creative liberties--but then, as Stravinsky said when he was criticized for rewriting Pergolesi, Tchaikovsky, and Gesualdo: "You respect but I love."

Jazz rarely confronts us with the temporal anxiety on which so much classical music depends. In most jazz performances the form is simply a repeated harmonic framework within which improvisation can happen. Where the large classical forms create interest by postponing events in order to establish a sense of arrival, jazz usually delivers its goods "in the moment," in the music critic Francis Davis's phrase. Sitting in a club, we listen to an open-ended series of choruses, happy to be present when a great soloist has time to stretch out.

Historically, however, there are two unrelated sources of a more articulated jazz form: the lingering influence of ragtime and the three-minute playing time of the 78-rpm record. The ragtime form stemmed from "Stars and Stripes Forever" and similar popular marches, which were built in parade style, usually from three different tunes, the most memorable saved for last. Many of Scott Joplin's rags followed a similar three-tune pattern, which persisted in jazz. Ellington showed less interest in adhering to the strict formal outlines of ragtime than in the larger idea of building a piece out of more or less dissimilar parts.

Ellington's formal mastery is no secret. The French jazz critic Andre Hodeir devoted twenty pages of heated existentialist prose to the formal design of Concerto for Cootie. (You can smell the Gauloise in a sentence like "Concerto for Cootie is a masterpiece because it shows the game being played for all it is worth, without anything's being held back, and because the game is won.") In the concerto we see Ellington the cubist at his most refined. In order to bring out different aspects of his trumpeter's style, Ellington assembles three elements: a call-and-response tune played with the mute, an eight-bar growled blues, and an exuberant Armstrong-style melody for the open horn. All are connected by short linking passages of two or three bars, which give the whole structure a flexible, sprung unpredictability.

Even the arrival of a bona fide Kansas City slugger like Ben Webster did not deflect Ellington from his constructive experiments toward the looser approach of the Basie band. "Cotton Tail," a showcase for Webster and Ellington's nearest approach to Kansas City style, builds to an explosive frenzy through a calculated mixture of expectation and surprise. There are six statements of a standard "I Got Rhythm" structure, and five of them contain a land mine. After a series of increasingly energized swerves and surprises, the final phrase of the final chorus repeats the opening tune--just once, with no padding or extension--and then it's over. Stunned by the elegant succinctness of the conclusion, we can hear that the piece was a brilliant ruse: a battle royal between Webster's sax, which is amplified into the Supersax team of the fifth chorus, and the brass section, Ellington's loyal commandos. Guess who wins.

Although many critics honor Ellington as a creator of miniatures, or three-minute masterpieces, his extended works are more controversial. Critics of Black, Brown and Beige, one of the longest of all his compositions, are nearly unanimous in blaming the music's failure on Ellington's allegedly defective formal sense. The piece, they say, is too long and too diffuse, and Ellington did not have the skills (that is, conservatory training) to sustain such a long structure.

Other composers, such as Gershwin and William Grant Still, did apply symphonic devices to jazz material, and the results are jazz-tinged symphonic music, not jazz. Ellington always composed his music from the formal resources of jazz as he understood them. He built his longer pieces, as he built his shorter ones, out of the four-, eight-, twelve-, and thirty-two-bar units of the blues and the standard popular song, though he frequently stretched these units by a bar or two and inserted short linking passages. There were no useful precedents for this kind of large structure, and so Ellington experimented with a number of different approaches to it. Black, Brown and Beige (1943) and Harlem (1951) combine the results of his previous formal research in richly articulated structures that are episodic yet intertwined--and that "tell a story." The variety of Ellington's formal devices amply proves that he did not suffer from a lack of conservatory training in form any more than in orchestration, another supposedly arcane field.

Ellington's creative career, like Stravinsky's and Beethoven's, can be divided into three periods. The "late period" of all three composers was long viewed with suspicion. There are several simple explanations for the neglect of the later Ellington. With the rise of rock, he never produced a hit tune after "Satin Doll" (1953)--much to his dismay, for he counted on his pop-tune royalties to subsidize the band. Despite the lack of hit tunes, Ellington's late period was one of great fecundity and invention, ranging from a constant stream of pieces played once and forgotten to the pungently noir symphonic score for the film Anatomy of a Murder, the joyful, witty ballet music for The River, and the three Sacred Concerts, whose mixture of naivete and the sublime may someday be heard in relation to The Magic Flute. Much of his late music took the form of suites written for festive premieres, sometimes in collaboration with Strayhorn, which cover a huge amount of expressive territory. The earliest, the 1944 Perfume Suite, opened up an avenue of erotic speculation that would reach its fulfillment twenty years later in Charles Mingus's The Black Saint and the Sinner Lady.

If I had to single out one masterpiece from Ellington's late period--one to place alongside Stravinsky's Agon--my choice would be the Shakespearean Suite, otherwise known as Such Sweet Thunder (recently re-released on CD by Sony). Both these youthful works were completed in 1957, when Stravinsky was seventy-five and Ellington fifty-eight. Both are suites of short dances which take as their subject a world of the late Renaissance--French court ballet and Elizabethan theater, respectively--and evoke that world through the unmistakable styles of their composers. The works also invade each other's territory. Agon has several jazzy moments, particularly in the Bransle Double. Though Stravinsky rarely had anything good to say about jazz, and to my knowledge never even mentioned Ellington in his writings, he frequently made use of jazz figures, notably in the Ebony Concerto, written for Woody Herman, and Symphony in Three Movements, both of which appeared two years after Black, Brown and Beige.

Although Such Sweet Thunder is clearly Ellington-Strayhorn jazz, it trespasses boldly into the world of art music. Four of the movements are written as sonnets, following the fourteen-line iambic pentameter design of the poetic form--Stravinsky called this process of turning poetic meter into music, which he used in Apollo, "versification." Each of these sonnets gives an Ellington soloist a chance to speak through his instrument, thereby connecting the Elizabethan soliloquy with the talking-horn wa-wa technique perfected by Joe Nanton.

Three movements give us Shakespearean portraits within recognizable Ellington genres. Othello appears in the title number, a series of African-tinged blues choruses, jaunty yet mysterious, recalling "Ko-Ko." Cleopatra's barge is evoked by some Tizol-style exoticism in "Half the Fun," and in Billy Strayhorn's "Star-crossed Lovers," Romeo and Juliet receive the benediction of a lush Hodges ballad. Four other movements open up new territory. "Lady Mac"(beth) is a down-home ragtime waltz with a tricky twenty-bar phrase structure that serves as a vehicle for a suave Clark Terry solo. "The Telecasters," according to the liner notes, represents the Three Witches (three trombones) and Iago (Harry Carney). While the programmatic premise may be tongue-in-cheek, its opposition of two dark colors demonstrates the principles of Ellingtonian counterpoint. But this is a warm-up act in contrapuntal acrobatics to "Up and Down, Up and Down," which compresses the entire story of A Midsummer Night's Dream into three event-packed minutes. If ever there was an Ellington composition that lived up to the phrase "beyond category," this is it. Then it goes even further: with "Madness in Great Ones" the Danish Prince turns up in a screech-trumpet mad scene that sounds like it could be the Art Ensemble of Chicago or Anthony Braxton some fifteen years later.

It seems almost too easy these days to say, with our saxophonist President, that jazz is "America's classical music." Although the phrase has a nice ring to it, it raises all sorts of questions (why classical? why American?) and then hides them under the flag. Even the impeccable Whitney Balliett recently termed Ives, Copland, and Barber "European apples" as opposed to that "American orange" Ellington--you can see Charles Ives's mouth foaming with Yankee rage. And I like to think that you can see Ellington himself shaking his head in dismay at the latest tyranny of category.

I've put Ellington head to head with Stravinsky not to set up a contest--would it matter who won?--but to suggest that the music of these two great twentieth-century composers can be talked about in the same terms and that when viewed from certain perspectives, the two men might have more in common with each other than with figures in their own traditions. As an assembler of music and a creative plunderer of the past, Stravinsky is closer to Ellington than he is to a more conventionally traditional and "sincere" composer like Rachmaninoff. As a musical architect and an alchemist of tone color, Ellington resembles Stravinsky more than he does an improvisational genius like John Coltrane. Both composers treated tradition as a field they were free to reshape--call it historical chutzpah. How's that for a category?


Copyright © 1995 by David Schiff. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; January 1995; "Built Pieces"; Volume 275, No. 1, pages 94-98.

m_nv_cv picture m_nv_un picture m_nv_am picture m_nv_pr picture m_nv_as picture m_nv_se picture